The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.

Posts by Ken Archer

Ken Archer is CTO of a software firm in Tysons Corner. He commutes to Tysons by bus from his home in Georgetown, where he lives with his wife and son. Ken completed a Masters degree in Philosophy from The Catholic University of America. 


Worried about redrawing school boundaries? Why not try controlled choice zones instead?

DC Councilmembers voiced anxiety about an impending change in school boundaries at a hearing last week. But instead of redrawing boundaries, maybe we should replace them with school choice zones.

Photo by Cedward Brice on Flickr.

Three education policy analysts recently penned an op-ed in the Washington Post calling for "controlled choice zones" in parts of DC. They suggested that in certain gentrifying areas, students should no longer be assigned to their closest neighborhood school.

Instead, families would list their preferences within a certain zone, and an algorithm would match them with one of their preferred schools while simultaneously taking family income into account. The objective would be to ensure that all schools within the zone have a mix of socioeconomic groups.

The concept is intriguing, but why limit it to certain neighborhoods? We should consider extending it to include all students enrolling in public schools in the District, in any part of town and any time of year.

The San Francisco plan, modified

Currently, DC students have a right to enroll in their in-boundary DCPS school at any time. They can also apply to enroll in out-of-boundary DCPS schools or charter schools through a lottery. Under a District-wide controlled choice model, there would be no more school boundaries.

San Francisco has a city-wide controlled choice model, with no school boundaries and algorithmic school placement. But the city isn't divided into zones, so conceivably a student could be placed at a school on the other side of town.

This system aggravates many San Francisco parents, but the resulting educational diversity has created one of the highest quality urban school systems in the country.

That's because research has shown that a balance of socioeconomic status produces the best educational outcomes, both overall and for students at each socioeconomic level.

There's already evidence of that in the District. The top elementary school in terms of student growth is not Janney, Mann, or another school populated entirely with students from within a wealthy boundary. It's Hyde, whose students are evenly split between affluent Georgetown families and out-of-boundary lottery applicants.

Obviously, the central political hurdle to this system is getting people to give up the right to buy their way into a good school district. But the only way to provide diverse schools is to eliminate the property right to the school closest to your house and place students using an algorithm. There's no way around it.

But that doesn't mean we have to adopt the San Francisco system. With controlled choice zones, we could have many of the educational benefits of greater diversity without the anxiety of possibly being placed in a school far from home.

Benefits of District-wide controlled choice

The authors of the Post op-ed suggest that parents be allowed to choose any DCPS or charter school within a given zone. They limit their proposal to "strategic parts of the city (namely, Capitol Hill, Columbia Heights, Mount Pleasant, Adams Morgan, Dupont/Logan Circle, and Petworth)."

This would promote greater diversity, resulting in school quality and test score growth. And it would create a system that values strong neighborhood schools, regardless of whether they are charter or DCPS.

However, expanding controlled choice zones to the entire District would deliver several additional benefits. Imagine if the lottery website allowed you to prioritize all of the elementary schools within 2 miles of your home, middle schools within 2.5 miles of your home, or high schools within 3 miles of your home.

Again, these schools would include both DCPS and charter schools. If the radius runs up against the District line, you could extend the radius in the opposite direction to compensate so as to have the same amount of choices. The algorithmic placement of students within these zones would generate the following additional benefits:

  • No parents would have to watch kids from across town attend a nearby high-performing charter school that didn't admit their own kids.
  • More affluent families moving east would be integrated into existing schools, raising the performance of all students.
  • If this enrollment system includes mid-year enrollees, students who move to town or are expelled from a school mid-year would be placed using the same algorithm. Charters would thus grapple with the same mid-year enrollees as DCPS.
  • Students wouldn't be allowed to transfer within their zone during the year, putting a stop to the practice of "counseling out" students with greater educational challenges.
This proposal isn't as far-fetched as it may seem to some. Chancellor Henderson has floated the idea of creating multiple District-wide high schools open to all, in addition to more District-wide magnet schools. And the three leading challengers to Mayor Vincent Gray in the Democratic primary—Councilmembers Muriel Bowser, Tommy Wells, and Jack Evans—have all committed to supporting neighborhood preference in charter school admissions.

Some may object that confining students to schools within one zone would limit choice, making zip code one's education destiny. But the reality is that most students already travel within the distances I'm suggesting.

In fact, a DC government task force cited the short commuting distances of charter students as a reason that neighborhood preference in admissions is unnecessary.

Furthermore, what if the choice one wants is a diverse school? Under the District's current system, families don't always have that choice. Schools that begin to attract affluent students can quickly "flip" from overwhelmingly low-income to the opposite.

Will all zones in DC benefit?

Another objection is that some zones in DC wouldn't have nearly enough non-poor students to create the diversity this plans aims for. However, it's precisely in these poorer parts of town—Wards 5, 7, and 8—that the plan would deliver the most support.

Because the plan would force charters to share the burden of mid-year enrollees and would stop mid-year "voluntary" transfers, enrollment numbers in DCPS schools in high-poverty areas would stabilize.

Also, as more affluent families move into these parts of town—a trend that many consider inevitable—this model ensures they will be integrated into existing schools for the maximum benefit of all students. There will be no more "flipping" of schools.

Some affluent families may not move into poor neighborhoods because they don't want to share in the work of supporting community institutions. The result will be a slower migration into these neighborhoods, but one that is more equitable for all and prevents displacement of long-time residents.

Finally, the controlled choice model would solve the intractable problem of overcrowding at Wilson High School. DCPS officials seem hesitant to solve the problem by returning Ellington High School in Georgetown to its original function as a neighborhood high school drawing students from Hardy Middle School.

That has left parents in Ward 4 whose elementary schools feed into Deal Middle School and Wilson particularly nervous. DCPS may decide to route those students into a less desirable feeder pattern.

And if that happens, it could generate a federal civil rights lawsuit, as school officials will have drawn boundaries that reflect racial and socioeconomic fault lines in the District. In fact, it was just such a civil rights lawsuit in San Francisco that led a judge to require the controlled choice model they have today.

Let's consider adopting the controlled choice model for DC. It works because it prioritizes both school choice and neighborhood schools. What do you think?


Charter board failed to act on violations of special ed law

Last night the DC Public Charter School Board (PCSB) took the first step towards closing a school serving many students with special needs that has been accused of numerous failings. However, newly released documents show that the PCSB knew of widespread violations at the school in June of last year and took no apparent action.

Options students. Photo from Options PCS.

DC's Attorney General has alleged that former managers of Options PCS diverted at least $3 million to their own pockets, and federal investigators are now looking into whether former leaders of the school committed Medicaid fraud. Several current and former teachers at the school have told the Washington Post and Greater Greater Education that the diversion resulted in a lack of funds that caused egregious violations of the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA), the federal law that mandates special education services.

A 2012 report from the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE), which was released to GGE, details the extent of the violations at Options. When asked what actions the PCSB or its staff took in response to the report, PCSB's spokesperson said only that the "PCSB works with OSSE on issues of IDEA compliance."

Under IDEA, public school systems are required to identify students with disabilities, conduct assessments, and then determine what special education accommodations each student requires. These accommodations go into an Individual Education Plan (IEP), which carries the weight of federal law.

OSSE is responsible for issuing regular reports on each public school's compliance with IDEA. However, OSSE cannot punish or close a charter school. Only the PCSB can do that, even if there are widespread violations of federal special education law at the school.

PCSB spokesperson Theola Labbé-DeBose said that the board "uses OSSE reports and takes their feedback or warnings on issues." She said that the PCSB itself has no staff designated to monitor special education compliance at charter schools.

The 2012 Options PCS special education compliance report from OSSE included the following findings:

  • Of 66 students whose IEPs required services related to behavior, only 9 received at least the minimum services they were entitled to.
  • Of 24 students whose IEPs required speech therapy, only 2 had this service delivered in full or more.
  • In March 2010, OSSE randomly sampled IEPs of 4 students age 16 or older to see if they included actual goals for the students to achieve, as required by IDEA, and found that none did. OSSE examined sample IEPs 4 more times over the course of the following year and each time found that none included any goals.
  • In the 2011-2012 school year, Options lost 3 claims brought by students against the school for failure to deliver special education services. However, none of the changes demanded by hearing officers, known as Hearing Officers Determinations (HODs), were implemented by OSSE even though the deadline for all of them had passed.
Special education oversight is broken

The PCSB never mentioned these reports last night, or that it knew of these widespread violations. So, what does the board know now that it didn't know over a year ago? Why is it only considering closing the school now?

The reason appears to be that mismanagement at Options became an issue for the PCSB only after Washington Post reporter Emma Brown uncovered large-scale financial mismanagement at the school in October. However, it's clear from the OSSE report that the PCSB knew or should have known about the damaging consequences of that mismanagement for the school's 320 students long before October.

The only logical conclusion is that there are no consequences for a school that denies federally mandated special education services to students, even on a mass scale. The only time schools pay for denial of special education services is when a student's parents are able to retain attorneys to sue the school.

In the case of Options, 100% of students are low-income, according to the PCSB. That means their parents are less able to afford legal services.

But the ability to defend your child's right to federally mandated special education services shouldn't be a privilege of the wealthy. Until violations of special education law result in consequences for schools, they will be.


Options PCS cheated special ed students of services

Options Public Charter School routinely denied students with disabilities textbooks and placed them in overcrowded classrooms, according to current and former teachers at the school. The mounting allegations raise questions about the lack of special education oversight in DC.

Photo from Options Public Charter School

DC's Attorney General has alleged that former managers of the school diverted at least $3 million to their own pockets. The lawsuit followed an investigation initiated by the DC Public Charter School Board into contracts between the school and two for-profit companies founded and controlled by its managers. That investigation came on the heels of a Freedom of Information request about the contracts filed by the Washington Post's Emma Brown.

Options, the city's oldest charter school, was founded to address the needs of the District's most troubled students with disabilities and received tens of millions of taxpayer dollars. The DC government allocates $28,884 for each student with disabilities, almost three times the amount allocated for other students.

Each October, DC officials visit schools to count the students enrolled and use that number to help determine the school's budget. According to one current teacher at Options, boosting student enrollment for "count day" has been a central goal of the school administration.

Former Options administrator Jeff Smith, who is not named in the lawsuit, led a marketing campaign in the summer of 2012 to boost enrollment before the count. The school gave students $25 Visa cards and free pizza for coming to school on count day, according to the teacher.

Chronic understaffing

However, this enrollment push did not include hiring extra teachers so that Options could maintain the teacher-student ratio that it promises. Options says it "ensures a six to one student to teacher ratio" in order to provide the personalized attention required by special needs students. According to the school's website, every classroom is supposed to have a special education teacher along with a general classroom teacher.

The Options teacher had 16 students per class on average last year, with two teachers per class. One of his classes had more than 20 students, 6 more students than desks in his classroom.

A former teacher at the school said that understaffing routinely led to the loss of one teacher from the classroom.

"Sometimes teachers didn't come to work, so they would have to pull teachers to cover," the teacher said. "So I would lose my special ed teacher for the day."

The former teacher said that rather than buying textbooks for students who might transfer out before the end of the year, the school chose not to send textbooks home with students. Instead, the teacher would give students xeroxed copies of the text to use for homework.

Speaking of the general atmosphere at the school, the former teacher said, "What is driving everything is money, and the bottom line is that these kids need services."

The court-appointed receiver for Options, Josh Kern, told GGE that he was unable to comment on the teachers' charges "with limited information about the specific allegations and limited time to respond."

Allegations similar to these have also appeared in the Post. One teacher told the Post that the school often lacked basic supplies like copying paper. And a former teacher said that several students spent the majority of the school year in a room for misbehaving kids, where they did not receive the services they were due. Smith denied that any students spent the majority of the year in such a room but told the Post that other charges were possibly true.

Minimal oversight allows lapses to go undetected

Special education services are a matter of federal law, specifically the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). All public school systems are required to identify students with learning disabilities, conduct assessments, and then determine what special education accommodations the students require. But there appears to be little or no oversight to ensure District public schools comply with IDEA.

DC's Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) last conducted on-site monitoring of Options to ensure special education compliance in December 2011. The most recent visit before that was in May 2009.

As with all on-site visits to monitor special education compliance, OSSE posts a calendar on its website announcing these visits in advance.

OSSE has no authority to close charter schools, even if they are found to violate special education regulations repeatedly. Only the Public Charter School Board (PCSB) can close a charter school. But, although it will crack down on obvious violations of IDEA and respond to parent complaints, it does not regularly monitor schools for special education compliance.

PCSB spokesperson Theola Labbé-DeBose says the Board expects to decide whether to initiate proceedings to revoke Options' charter at its December 16 meeting, with a final decision at its meeting in January. But, she said, even if the Board decides to begin revocation proceedings, "the school would remain open through the end of this school year."

The federal government used to focus more on enforcing compliance with IDEA requirements. But in 2012, Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced that the Department would shift its efforts from ensuring the delivery of accommodations to tracking the performance of special education students on standardized tests.

"For too long we've been a compliance-driven bureaucracy when it comes to educating students with disabilities," said Duncan. "We have to expect the very best from our students. The best way to do that is by focusing on results."

Given this lax oversight, only families who are able to afford attorneys can hold District schools accountable for providing special education services for their children. At Options, 84% of students are low-income, according to the PCSB.

While the theft of public funds by Options officials angers many and is the focus of the District's lawsuit, the real victims are the school's 400 special needs students. Rather than keeping the school open, the DC government should immediately offer to pay their tuition at any private school in the area that will admit them and that provides the services they need. That would be expensive, but cost is not supposed to be a consideration under IDEA.

But even if Options is closed, as it should be, the system that allowed the school to deprive hundreds of students of accommodations they were legally entitled to year after year will still be in place.


DC will gain statehood by acting like a state

Councilmember David Grosso has called for Mayor Gray to pay DC employees during the federal government shutdown and to implement DC laws without submitting them to Congress for approval. His actions show us that the path to statehood isn't through protest, but by simply living as free citizens of a state.

Photo by Lost in Transit [Keep St... on Flickr.

Until this point, DC residents relegated to second-rate status have had two options. First, we could meekly submit to the humiliating rituals imposed upon us by federal law. Remember when a US Senator put a hold on our budget because they didn't like our taxi fares?

Second, we could protest as we have for decades. Mayor Gray was arrested for sitting down in traffic to protest our status. Grosso offers a third way, and the best part is that we cannot lose.

Unlike every other jurisdiction in America, during a federal government shutdown the District of Columbia cannot spend its own locally-raised tax money. That's because Congress treats DC's budget as part of the federal budget.

Mayor Gray has responded to this obvious injustice by going back and forth between our two traditional options, protest and obedience. Last week, Gray confronted Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid at a press conference, and has staged protests on a nearly daily basis.

But ultimately Gray says that he is prepared to obey this unjust law if protests prove unsuccessful. Mayor Gray said in a speech last week that paying DC employees during the shutdown would undermine our "moral authority."

Gray's speech shows a lack of understanding of the moral logic of nonviolent disobedience in the face of unjust laws. Nonviolent disobedience isn't simply protesting by breaking the law. It's avoiding protest altogether and instead living one's life as a free citizen, even if innocent activities of daily life are illegal.

The central appeal of disobedience is that it cannot lose. Protests only work when those in power concede some of their power. Disobedience always works, because you deny to anyone authority over your freedom to live as a full human being.

That's why disobedience always works. It immediately undoes the most harmful effect of unjust laws: when a community internalizes its second-rate status.

Statehood isn't about budgeting, though that is one important benefit. It's true that DC residents bear a heavy fiscal burden, to the tune of about $1 billion a year, because of a structural deficit that Congress would likely fix if DC was a state.

But statehood isn't about the budget. It's about dignity and ridding much of our community of decades of internalized disenfranchisement. So many of our social and economic challenges in DC stem from a deep lack of agency, what many call a spiritual disenfranchisement. In his landmark book Development as Freedom, Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen calls this internalized disempowerment the true source of poverty.

When our mayor claims the dignity of self-governance and simply governs as any other freely-elected mayor would, we can expect a larger percentage of our city's remarkable talent will stand up to govern too, as Kojo Nnamdi so eloquently explains. In fact, disobeying laws denying our self-governance engenders far more civic dignity than the civic pride of a thousand professional sports franchises.

So, breaking unjust laws doesn't undermine moral authority. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. broke unjust laws. Jesus broke unjust laws. And, of course, so did Mahatma Gandhi.

Czech dissident Vaclav Havel called this "living in truth." Under communism, Czech dissidents split between activists planning petitions and artists who simply wanted to do their art. Havel unified them by explaining to activists that attending a banned music concert was more effective than any protest.

Mayor Gray faces a huge decision whether or not to disobey federal laws. But the right choice is clear, and if he doesn't make it, another mayor ultimately will.


Allegations on test scores miss the whole story

DC Council Education Committee Chair David Catania has alleged that testing officials inflated the percentage of students reported as "proficient" on standardized tests given earlier this year.

David Catania. Photo from the DC Council website.

Officials say they were just trying to ensure this year's scores could be compared with those from previous years. But according to multiple sources, the real story has to do with inappropriate questions from DC's testing vendor.

In recent years DC schools have begun teaching more rigorous content aligned with the Common Core standards, and this past school year students took a revised version of the DC CAS designed to test that content. Because the test had changed, some OSSE officials were working with the District's testing vendor, CTB McGraw Hill, to change the grading scale. The new scale would have used different minimum scores, or "cut scores," to define levels like "proficient" and "advanced."

In June of this year, responsibility for testing was transferred from the Director of Assessments to Director of Data Management Jeff Noel. Noel says he was surprised to learn that testing officials had expected to implement the new grading scale this year.

Using the new scale would have made it impossible to compare this year's proficiency rates to the levels reported in previous years, a fact no one outside OSSE had been made aware of. Only 6 days after taking over responsibility for testing, Noel decided to switch back to the old grading scale, with the support of others at OSSE.

Catania alleged in a hearing last Thursday that OSSE chose to switch to the old grading scale at the last minute in order to ensure gains in both reading and math. If OSSE had used the new grading scale, with its new cut scores, math scores would have been lower, by 3.6 points, and reading scores would have been higher, by 6.6 points.

These scores would not have been comparable to previous scores, since the grading scales were different. But observers might have missed that point. When other states, like New York, adopted new Common Core-aligned grading scales, they saw dramatic drops in scores. These states made it clear that comparisons to previous years would not be possible, but the decline in scores led to a public outcry nonetheless.

Test vendor's question

At the hearing Catania accused OSSE officials of manipulating the grading scale to produce gains in both reading and math scores—gains that Mayor Vincent Gray declared "historic" when they were released in July.

But two people involved in the process told Greater Greater Education that Noel was also concerned about the test vendor's approach to setting new cut scores. Those individuals said that at a June 17 meeting, a CTB executive asked OSSE officials: "What growth do you think makes sense for the state?"

In addition, CTB gave OSSE a form to guide the cut score process that allowed officials to explicitly indicate where the scores would be expected to end up. Choosing lower cut scores would have allowed them to report greater improvement in proficiency rates.

DC CAS Reflection Form provided by CTB to OSSE

The two individuals, who asked to remain anonymous, said that the decision to return to the old cut scores was partly motivated by concerns about CTB's process and a desire to distance OSSE from it. CTB spokesperson Brian Belardi said CTB McGraw Hill has no comment.

Catania also made another allegation, with some justification: OSSE didn't reveal that even under the grading scale it ended up using, this year's scores are not as comparable to prior years' scores as they have been in the past. In most years the content covered by the test is the same as in previous years, but between 2012 and 2013 some of the content changed. Emily Durso, interim State Superintendent of Education, said that OSSE's failure to mention this qualification was simply an oversight.

While the true motives of OSSE officials in switching back to the old grading scale may be different than those Catania alleged, they are no less concerning.

Catania told the Washington Post that this controversy has him questioning whether so many high-stakes decisions should be made based on scores involving so much "subjectivity." Many advocates have been saying as much for years.

Others have argued that the problem isn't high-stakes testing generally, but rather that fundamental changes are necessary to restore faith in the testing system.

OSSE needs more independence

The first of these changes would be to give OSSE independence from the Mayor, similar to the autonomy conferred on DC's Chief Financial Officer. In fact, Catania has proposed legislation providing that the Mayor could dismiss the State Superintendent only for cause, like the CFO.

Mayor Gray is the only head of a public school system who also hires and fires the state superintendent in charge of testing and auditing the schools. Some observers feel that the Gray administration must have pressured OSSE to switch to the old grading system, although there's no hard evidence to support that conclusion.

Even if no such pressure was applied, the testing vendor's apparent willingness to base scoring decisions on expected improvements in proficiency rates creates a temptation that must be isolated from political officials.

The CAS controversy also demands a fresh look at the testing measures we rely on. It's precisely because proficiency metrics are so subjective that they are unreliable and open to political manipulation.

Measure growth, not "proficiency"

Instead of focusing on the "percent proficiency" metrics that are at the heart of this controversy, we need to use measures of growththe ability of a classroom teacher to increase students' educational attainment.

When test results are based on a proficiency cut score, they indicate the percentage of test-takers who scored higher than that minimum. The advantage of this approach is that it gives the public a sense of what an acceptable score is. But it tends to magnify small changes and reveals little about changes in scores that are either well above or well below "proficiency."

Tests that are scored for "growth," on the other hand, use averages based on all participants' scores and compare them to previous years' averages. This method allows all changes throughout the test-taking group to be reflected in the final results. It's also objective: the calculation doesn't require making any year-to-year judgment calls about how to interpret the results.

Measures of growth would also highlight varying changes at different skill levels. Teachers would have an incentive to raise all scores, not simply to push students who are slightly below proficiency to being slightly above.

OSSE actually does report a metric of growth, or value added, known as MGP. But, with the notable exception of the IMPACT system for assessing teachers, few evaluations are based on such scores. Principals, for example, are assessed on their ability to increase percent-proficient numbers, even though such numbers can be impacted more by demographic changes or students transferring between schools than instructional quality. And DCPS, OSSE, and the Public Charter School Board continue to present "percent proficiency" numbers most prominently in school profiles, leading parents to believe these are the best indicators of school quality.

Do you think the credibility of the testing regime in DC can be restored through these changes? Or do you think the problem is high-stakes testing itself, and that test scores should figure less prominently in school decisions?


Mayor announces 9 Career Academies for DC youth

Mayor Gray yesterday announced the creation of 9 Career Academies within public high schools. The Academies will operate as schools-within-schools and provide career-specific internships and occupational training integrated with regular high school coursework.

Photo by City Year on Flickr.

The Academies, based on a model found nationwide, are expected to boost academic and occupational outcomes of high school students. But Councilmember David Catania, chair of the DC Council Education Committee, questioned the modest scale of the initiative, and a study casts doubt on the extent of the Academies' impact.

The largest study of Career Academies concludes that they raise earnings for some participants and increase the chance that graduates will marry and raise children. But they do not raise graduation rates.

The Career Academies are a recommendation of a Career and Technical Education Task Force that issued recommendations to Mayor Gray last December. Students accepted at a participating high school will be eligible to enroll in the Career Academy at that school.

SchoolAcademy TypeWardSector
Cardozo Education CampusIT1DCPS
Columbia Heights Education CampusHospitality1DCPS
Dunbar High SchoolEngineering5DCPS
McKinley Technology High SchoolEngineering5DCPS
McKinley Technology High SchoolIT5DCPS
Phelps ACE High SchoolEngineering5DCPS
Wilson High SchoolHospitality3DCPS
Friendship Collegiate AcademyIT7Charter
Friendship Tech Prep High SchoolEngineering8Charter

When asked why no DCPS high schools east of the Anacostia River are participating, DCPS spokesperson Melissa Salmanowitz replied, "All DCPS schools were invited to apply. In the future, we hope to explore supporting more academies in more schools and industries."

Each Career Academy will have 75-100 students, according to State Superintendent of Education Emily Durso. The Academies will last from 9th or 10th grade through 12th grade.

The initiative is small from a funding perspective, only $2.7 million for the planning year, with future funding dependent on annual budgets. Eight Academy Directors and 9 College & Career Coordinators will be hired at a cost of $1.9 million. No additional teachers will be hired.

Councilmember Catania called the funding "paltry" in an interview with WAMU. Catania told the Washington Post that "if this city can find $150 million to build a soccer stadium, we can certainly find money to make a commensurate investment in our young people."

Why don't Career Academies have more of an impact?

But if the District wants to improve career pathways for high school students, it's not clear what we should spend more money on.

The largest study of Career Academies concluded not only that they don't increase graduation rates, but also that the boost in future earnings was limited to males in the group. And that boost was 17%, or $3,700 per year. These are hardly the dramatic outcomes many have expected from effective career and technical education in high schools.

The study, by education research organization MDRC, is fairly reliable. It is better than many education studies in that it tracked the same group of students over a period of time. And it compared students in Career Academies to students who applied to those programs but weren't admitted for lack of space, thus helping to ensure that the two groups studied weren't fundamentally different due to self-selection.

The Career Academy approach teaches basic education courses in the context of occupational training. When this approach has been used with adults who lack basic literacy skills, the academic and occupational outcomes have been far better than when the subjects are taught separately. So why isn't the same true for high school students in Career Academies?

One possible explanation is that the classes for adults put a basic education teacher and an occupational skills trainer in the same classroom, an expensive method. Career Academies simply retrain an existing teacher to integrate occupational skills into academic curriculum.

Is career and technical education in high school a good idea? Are Career Academies the right way to provide it? I don't know the answers to these questions, but they seem to be the ones that education officials in DC should be focusing on.


What drives the growth of DC's tech sector?

DC has lavished attention and subsidies on a few tech companies to bolster its economy. But the growth of tech firms in and around Dupont Circle suggests that investing in an attractive urban space is a more effective way to grow a local tech scene.

Mayor Gray visits 1776. Photo by the author.

DC has a flourishing tech scene, as seen in the growth of several coworking spaces, where startups can get work done and find community. There are 5 in DC, 4 of which are in or near Dupont Circle, as are several other tech companies and the Acceleprise incubator.

Mayor Gray has visited one of these spots, 1776, 4 times, and given it $380,000 in grants. 1776 is a fantastic coworking space whose leadership is committed to supporting startups.

But does the District attract tech companies because we subsidize firms like 1776 and LivingSocial that claim to be hubs of talent and capital? Or is it because we have invested for a decade in urban amenities and density that attracts talent and capital to places like Dupont Circle, as Richard Florida argues?

Dupont Circle has emerged as the hub of the DC tech cluster. Besides Canvas and 1776, Affinity Lab on U Street, and PunchRock in Adams Morgan provide coworking space. Several tech companies and the Acceleprise incubator also reside in the Dupont Circle area.

This cluster emerged without government assistance or backing. 1776 is an exciting coworking space that I hope is successful, but the startups laboring in these other coworking spaces seem to be just as critical to diversifying our tax base.

Florida, who opposed Gray's subsidy to LivingSocial last year, argues that our urban core is responsible for attracting the talent and capital that have made our tech sector thrive:

Today venture capital investment and startup activity also reflect the turn back to the urban core; nearly half of the [Washington] region's total (47.5 percent), or $600 million, went to the District of Columbia proper. Most of that was concentrated in a single zip code (20005) that spans McPherson Square, Thomas Circle and Logan Circle.
While Gray expresses support for DC's tech sector, it sometimes looks like a search for a North Star he can follow, like Living Social, by providing subsidies and personal encouragement. Rather, tech clusters naturally emerge in dense urban areas that attract smart young people, with no single company as the hub.

Dupont-area Tech Firms. Green: Coworking spaces. Blue: Incubators. Red: Tech Startups.

I work 2 days per week at Canvas, a coworking space in Dupont Circle. I see startups there working all-nighters to build their businesses.

At minimum, it would be incredibly encouraging for more of DC's startups to get a visit from the mayor. After all, we are relying on all of these startups to diversify DC's economy beyond dependence on the federal government. After a recent tweet from Gray about visiting 1776, I replied asking why he hadn't visited any other coworking spaces.

However, DC angel investor and entrepreneur Glen Helmen recently questioned whether Gray's involvement in the tech sector is broad enough.

It's great that Mayor Gray is looking for investment opportunities in DC tech. And we all want 1776 and LivingSocial to be wildly successful, as they are prominent contributors to the local tech sector.

But most startups came here or decided to stay here because they like DC, not because of subsidies or Living Social or 1776. Doesn't that tell us what our strength is that we should build upon?

A better way to support and nourish the city's tech scene would be to encourage the creation of a great urban environment, by continuing the same investments in transportation and public amenities and housing and commercial space that the city has been doing for the past decade. That way, companies will have even more reasons to come here, and those who already like it will have more reasons to stay.

In the meantime, Mayor Gray would do well to show his support for all local tech companies, not just those he has strategically invested in. If he wants to visit other coworking spaces and tech firms, the mayor has a standing invitation from Canvas, and presumably from every other coworking spot.


Are demographic changes behind test score improvements?

DC Mayor Vincent Gray announced record increases in test scores last month, attributing the gains to his education reform policies. But could demographic changes in DC be responsible for the increases? The answer is: we don't know.

Photo by verbeeldingskr8 on Flickr.

Mayor Gray and DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson have claimed that the increases validate their education reform policies and show we must "stay the course", a subtle jab at Councilmember David Catania's "reform 2.0" proposals.

But is it possible that the test score increases reflect the growth of middle and upper class families in DC, and not increased school quality?

What does census data say?

DCPS points to the improvements in test scores each year since the 2007 mayoral takeover of DC Public Schools.

DCPS test scores have consistently gone up

But look at the changes in demographics among DC families over a similar time period.

Income of DC Families. Source: Census American Community Surveys

The median income among families in DC has consistently climbed, from $51,411 in 2005 to $75,603 in 2011, according to the census' annual American Community Survey (ACS). And students from higher-income families tend to do better on standardized tests.

Some important caveats should be made. First, we don't know whether this demographic shift is reflected in the public school population. Second, the ACS data that is available only goes through 2011, with 2012 data scheduled to be released in September.

DCPS spokesperson Melissa Salmanowitz pointed me to the growth in scores since 2007 for students who receive free or reduced-price lunch, saying these gains had "disproven" the thesis that demographics are behind the overall score gains. Students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch come from families earning under 185% of the poverty line.

It's true that scores for those students have gone up. But most or all of that gain happened before many of the reforms Gray and Henderson claim are responsible for the increase took effect. After 2009, the scores for students who receive free and reduced price lunches plateaued.

FARM scores increased before school reform

And this spike in scores from 2007 to 2009 wasn't due to cheating. Scores on the federal NAEP test from students receiving free and reduced-price lunch also spiked from 2007 to 2009 and then leveled off or declined in 2011. The NAEP test is allegedly "uncheatable."

What does this mean?

Does this mean that demographics, and not school quality initiatives like Common Core, charter expansion, teacher assessments and extended school day, are responsible for the increase in test scores? I don't believe we can draw that conclusion.

What this means is that we don't know what is causing the test score gains. We can't tell what is causing the increase in test scores because we are using static proficiency measures of test scores that have been roundly criticized.

Static measures of growth compare different cohorts of students from year to year. The problem is that when the demographic composition of students in a school changes, test results may go up or down because of that change rather than a change in the quality of instruction.

DC Public Schools and Mayor Gray are currently held to a bar that has been set for them by others, namely OSSE and the federal No Child Left Behind law, and not themselves. And they should be congratulated for moving these static test scores in the right direction.

What needs changing, as the National Academy of Sciences argues, is the bar itself. We need to start holding schools accountable using metrics of growth, such as how many grade levels a school advances its students each year. Isn't that what matters?

Chancellor Henderson's response to the suggestion that increased test scores might be the result of an influx of wealthier students was: "Haters are going to hate." But is it hate to try to follow the data wherever it leads? I don't think so. I thought that's what school reform was all about.


Workforce development can solve poverty in DC

The challenge of poverty in DC can feel overwhelming. What can any one person do? Experts largely agree that workforce development is the solution, and the good news is that you can have a big impact.

Photo by mnd.ctrl on Flickr.

Workforce development is the systematic removal of barriers to employment, whatever they may be, that jobless residents face. There are many stereotypes about the causes of poverty in DC. Examining the true causes of poverty shows why workforce development matters so much, and why it deserves far more attention than it gets.

The initially-apparent causes of poverty are unemployment and underemployment. But what personal or systematic barriers to employment do jobless people face? You may be surprised to learn what they are.

The root problems of poverty may not be what you think

Joblessness in DC is due to poor workforce readiness, not lack of jobs. Martha Ross, a Brookings Institute fellow who leads research on DC, notes that the city has more jobs than residents and is located in an economically strong region. That means our primary lever to reduce unemployment and poverty isn't adding more jobs, it's workforce development.

"We're in a relatively fortunate position: we have jobs to connect people to or train them for," says Ross. "We're not like other cities or regions that are hemorrhaging jobs."

Despite this, elected officials talk about creating jobs for DC residents far more than they talk about workforce development. We could do so much to improve our broken workforce development system if we only had the will to do it.

So, what needs fixing? Some people assume that the issue is those who provide workforce training, but that's not true. If a lack of skills were the only barrier to employment faced by poor people, DC would not have a poverty crisis.

Most jobless and underemployed residents have more obstacles to full employment than occupational skills. Major obstacles to employment are lack of child care, lack of literacy and basic adult education, soft skills, lack of transportation, addiction issues, and barriers to hiring citizens returning from prison.

Unemployment is an assault on one's dignity. All of these barriers may cause unemployed people to lose their sense of agency and empowerment, something that most working residents take for granted. This creates the greatest challenge to public policy, but it is one for which there are proven solutions.

How can workforce development help?

It's understandable that we would want to focus on helping the unemployed who are motivated to help themselves. The reality, though, is that doing so won't solve the crisis of poverty. But there are proven solutions to addressing the poverty of hope that holds back those with multiple barriers to employment.

  1. Integrating literacy, basic education with skills training
  2. Literacy and adult basic education are usually considered prerequisites to occupational skills training. Not surprisingly, completion rates for literacy and basic education courses are low. They take a long time to complete, and people struggling with a loss of empowerment may be reluctant to put in the effort.

    There is a better way. In 2004, Washington state piloted a new model: integrated basic education and occupational skills training. It's more expensive, because it requires two instructors. Literacy and basic education are taught in the context of a specific occupation. But it works.

    The program, called I-BEST, greatly improved completion rates for basic education and was expanded statewide in 2006. Many states have created their own I-BEST programs, which are often provided through community colleges. In Maryland, both Montgomery College and Prince George's Community College have successful I-BEST programs.

    Meanwhile, the University of the District of Columbia Community College (UDC-CC) still provides separate basic education and occupational skills training according to the old model. And literacy services, which are contracted by DC's State Superintendent of Education, are also disconnected from occupational training.

  3. Pre- and post-employment wraparound services
  4. DC agencies offer many services to address obstacles to employment, like childcare, literacy, transportation, and skills training. Unfortunately, they are often hard to find, require repeated visits at all hours to offices around town, and require providing duplicate paperwork that is sometimes lost. As a result, these services often go to the jobless who need them the least because they possess the drive to navigate this system.

    The unemployed poor need a one-stop delivery model of wraparound services. Federal law requires every state to establish One-Stop centers to disribute federal training grants to the unemployed. But DC's One-Stops are in desperate need of reform.

    Numerous studies point to long waiting times for services at DC's One-Stop centers. And a report leaked earlier this year showed the consequences: lots of jobless come to the One-Stops for help, but very few receive services.

    "Effective One-Stop centers often have strong partnerships with social service providers", according to Brooke DeRenzis of DC Appleseed, who led a study of DC's One-Stops this year. "In some cases, partner organizations that provide services like public assistance or housing may even locate staff at the One-Stop center", an arrangement that doesn't exist in DC's One-Stops.

    In addition, UDC-CC has been unwilling to provide any user-friendly wraparound services. The UDC-CC president actually told a Council hearing last month that "job placement is not part of our mission". Unfortunately, even their core services of class registration have proven inaccessible, with reports of lost paperwork and long waiting periods.

  5. Outcomes reporting
  6. There are dozens of workforce development programs spread across 13 DC agencies, but little reporting on the outcomes of those programs. Reliable reporting would expose the ineffectiveness of isolated point programs that don't follow the models described above.

    Outcomes reporting should focus not in individual job training programs, but on the One-Stops and UDC Community College. (See Update below for UDC-CC reports.) That's because these are the agencies that should coordinate training with other services to help jobless overcome all barriers to employment.

    The lack of outcomes reporting is particularly tragic given how readily available it is. The employment status and salary of every employed DC resident is easily accessible in DC's unemployment insurance database, which is integrated with those of neighboring states.

What you can do

How can you take effective action to help solve poverty in DC? For starters, you can volunteer with organizations that use best practices. Look for organizations that provide integrated basic education and skills training, wraparound services, and report their outcomes.

One example is So Others Might Eat, or SOME. This organization uses the I-BEST co-teaching model in their Center for Employment Training, and provides wraparound services to clients and tracking of graduates for reporting purposes.

You can also advocate for reform of OSSE literacy services, UDC Community College, One-Stops and our outcomes reporting system at many venues. You can email your councilmember or testify at one of several hearings each year on workforce development and adult education.

The next hearing, on September 27, concerns UDC. Come testify about the urgency of reforming the UDC Community College as described above. You can follow DC Council hearings on their online calendar, or email me and I'll keep you informed of upcoming hearings on workforce development where you can testify.

Update: While UDC-CC is not required to produce outcomes reporting, it turns out that they do anyway and, to their great credit, posted the reports to their site yesterday.


Most Ward 2 neighborhoods oppose visitor parking passes

Most of the Advisory Neighborhood Commissions in DC's Ward 2 have passed resolutions saying they don't want a free visitor parking placard program in their neighborhoods. The commissions went on record on this issue up to a year ago, but last week, transportation officials announced that they'll expand the program citywide anyway.

DDOT decided not to listen. Photo by sokabs on Flickr.

Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans also opposes the plan. He citing the opposition of "most of the ANCs" in his ward, while saying he only has gotten a few messages from constituents who support the program.

Georgetown's ANC hasn't passed such a resolution, but that doesn't mean they support it, either. Its chair, Ron Lewis, told residents and the media that "this came as a total surprise to us." Lewis has been working for years with Georgetown residents and DDOT parking planners to find agreement on a set of parking proposals that everyone would support.

Shortly before DDOT's announcement, the agency's planners in charge of parking, Damon Harvey and Angelo Rao, left or were fired. Harvey and Rao had led two parking town halls in Georgetown and dozens of meetings of an ad hoc Georgetown Parking Working Group made up of residents and business representatives. I was involved in these meetings, and all parties felt that the group was very close to a set of consensus proposals after years of negotiation.

Free visitor parking passes for all Georgetown RPP holders was never a serious proposal in these discussions, and community leaders communicated concerns about expanding these passes into Georgetown several times.

We've been here before

Last year, a similar process played out. DDOT spokesperson Monica Hernandez told reporters that the agency intended to expand the trial citywide. In response, ANCs throughout Ward 2 passed resolutions opposing the idea and sent the resolutions to DDOT.

For example, here is Dupont's ANC 2B resolution from last October.

DDOT ultimately pulled back and did not expand the program to these neighborhoods in 2012. Rao promised to devise a replacement system before this fall. However, with no new program on the horizon, DDOT announced it would offer visitor passes to all neighborhoods by October 1 and proposed regulations making that possible.

You can provide feedback on DDOT's expansion of the visitor parking program through the mandated 30-day comment period for all such regulations. To tell the agency how you feel about their regulations expanding free visitor parking placards citywide, email before September 8.

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